Why the train sometimes beats a plane

You can travel long distances for business and still keep your feet firnly on the ground.
You can travel long distances for business and still keep your feet firnly on the ground. 

Think of travelling for business and for most people it's airports rather than train stations that spring to mind.

That's especially so in Australia, where a "high-speed train" is one that skips a few suburban stations on the morning commute.

In all likelihood, we'll never see an Aussie bullet train barrelling between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

It's a very different scene in Europe and some parts of Asia – notably Japan and China – thanks to the network of fast rail lines darting between major cities.

For journeys up to a handful of hours, hopping on a high-speed train becomes a true alternative to flying for business travellers.

That's the theory, at any rate. Late last year, on a visit to London, I had the chance to put this to the test.

I caught the Eurostar train from London to Paris for the weekend, and then flew back from Paris to London with British Airways.

The average time for BA's flights between London and Paris is around 75 minutes, compared to around 2 hours 20 minutes on Eurostar.

But it's not just about the time you spend sitting in your seat. It's about the total travel time of your journey.

And much of that is spent in the stop-and-go of catching a plane, especially with modern security screenings taking a large chunk of time at the airport.

For example, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 11am for a 12.15pm flight to London's Heathrow Airport.

Online check-in and travelling with only carry-on luggage meant I could skip the check-in counter and head straight to the departures zone, where a quick trip through the security lane saw me settling in at the BA lounge by 11.20am.

A half-hour later I hustled to the gate, with boarding for the 12.15pm flight closing at 12 noon, and we took off bang on schedule.

Upon arriving at London at 12.30pm local time I flashed a "fast track" pass to scoot through BA's Terminal 5, then caught the Heathrow Express to reach Paddington station and my nearby hotel around 1.30pm.

All up, without counting the time from my Paris hotel to Charles de Gaulle airport, the trip took around three-and-a-half hours.

It also included a lot of "hurry up and wait": busting through security in order to sit around at the lounge, waiting to be called to the boarding gate, then waiting to actually board the plane, and finally waiting for it to take off.

How does that compare to a high-speed train? My trip from London's St Pancras International station to Paris Gare du Nord began with an 8.40am arrival for the 9.17am train, although Eurostar's business class travellers can arrive as late as 10 minutes before departure (try doing that at any airport).

The station's design is that of a small and efficient regional airport, and the whole process of going through security and passport control took barely five minutes.

Boarding the Eurostar is much faster than boarding a flight, too.

Instead of queuing along an aerobridge to pass through a single door, you line up along the platform according to the carriage number on your ticket.

This all cuts out the stop-start nature of flying and replaces it with full-on productivity, if that's your thing.

For example, as soon as you take your seat you can start working on your laptop or tablet (some Eurostar trains will also have free Internet from the end of this year), use your smartphone, tune out with your iPod or do any of the things you can't do on a plane until it reaches level flight.

My standard economy seat on the Eurostar proved wider, more comfortable and with more legroom than on the BA aircraft, and of course I could wander around and stretch my legs any time I wanted to.

By the time the train rolled into Paris North station at 12.50pm my total travel time was still shy of three hours, giving me plenty of time to reach my hotel at Place de la Republique, straddling the edges of the 10th and 11th arrondissements.

On a stopwatch test, plane and train were almost equal, but the city centre location of the Eurostar stations gave it a clear edge over distant airports.

More noticeably, though, I found the train trip far less stressful and immensely more enjoyable. I arrived feeling more rested and awake, too. There was no cabin pressure or reduced oxygen flow to deal with, none of that ceaseless engine drone or even swelling of one's feet enroute.

The overall experience chalked up a clear win to Eurostar and made this an experiment I'm keen to repeat on other high-speed lines within Europe.

What's your experience with high-speed rail, and how does it stack up against flying for business travel?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

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